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It’s been nearly two weeks since I attended the annual scholarly society meetings for scholars in my field of study and interest: the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), the Near East Archaeological Society (NEAS), the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR). All these societies (and more) meet annually the week before Thanksgiving. This year we met in Baltimore.

I’ll be blogging about a couple things that happened during that week that will interest readers. In this post, my focus will be the AAR session (a whole afternoon) on astrobiology – the search for biological evidence for ET life – and its intersection with religion. The session was part of the program for the Science, Technology, and Religion Group of AAR. The session theme was entitled, “Cosmic Quest, Cosmic Contact: Astrobiology, Astrotheology, Astroethics.” The speakers went in a slightly different order than the program book had them listed. The presenters and their topics were:

Margaret Race, SETI Institute, Mountain View, CA
Astrobiology, Ethics and Policy: The Need for Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Albert Harrison, University of California, Davis
Space Exploration: Carrying God’s Banner or Questioning God’s Work? (“Prophecy, Transcendence and Salvation on the High Frontier”)

Chris Crews, The New School (New York city)
What if Gliese 581 d Had Life? Christian Fundamentalism and the Politics of Astrobiology

Ted Peters, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
Astrotheology and Extraterrestrial Life

Connie Bertka, Potomac, MD (affiliations with the American Association for Advancement Science and the Smithsonian)
Christianity and the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life: Insights from Science and Religion, and the Sociology of Religion

John Hart, Boston University
Cosmic Contact: Hawking, Hynek, and Cosmoethics

I enjoyed the session. All of the lectures were interesting, even when I was familiar with the material. I promised on Twitter to share some of the content and thoughts. I’ll take them in order.

Margaret Race is a biologist associated with SETI. Her talk was really aimed at newbies to the subject of astrobiology – it seemed a necessary concession to anyone who may have wandered into the session just out of curiosity. She focused on what SETI does and the issues of the use and stewardship of space. She insisted that theologians be involved to frame an ethical and theological framework for what SETI might someday discover. She mentioned the UN Outer Space Treaty which (in part) advocates for de-militarization of space (especially no nukes – someone might want to tell China and DARPA) and rejects the idea of human ownership of space.

Albert Harrison, a psychologist, was up next. He started out by talking about how certain modern “prophets” (read: visionaries) had written about how humans would one day inhabit space. Among them he listed

  • Roger Launias’
  • Tsiolkovski and Cosmists
  • Herman Oberth
  • Willy Ley
  • Kraft Arnold Ehricke
  • Wernher von Braun

Harrison related the desire for human life in space to utopian visions, the experience of and need for the transcendent (he mentioned Edgar Mitchell here) and the desire for human immortality. In regard to this last item, he noted three different perspectives of thought:

  • Cosmists – want to resurrect everyone who ever lived out of cosmic dust via technological method “to live in solidarity with the stars”
  • Pragmatists – disperse humans in solar system in case of or in response to global catastrophe
  • Memorialists – use space time capsules to tell other civilizations about the human race

Lastly, Harrison talked about Christian acts in space and blessing of space exploration. For example, he mentioned that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took communion in space, the creation of an Apollo prayer league to pray for astronauts, and “Exomissiology” (astronaut chaplains, leaving a Bible on moon, Russian priests blessing cosmonaut crews).

Chris Crews was next, a political science doctoral student. (He narrates his slides here). He focused on young earth creationist (YEC) responses (or not) to the idea of ET life. In so doing he equated the YEC view with fundamentalism (though he was aware of the Old Earth Creationist position – a distinction he ignored in his presentation, by his own admission). The two aren’t actually synonymous (many YEC folks would not take positions on certain things integral to fundamentalism — but it’s largely a parochial squabble there). He also equated global warming denial with creationism, a greater blunder on his part in my view.

Crews’ session was filled with interesting statistics drawn from a range of studies (a bit dated). A sampling:

  • 317 million people in the USA; 247 million of those classify themselves as Christians; of those, 84 million take the label “evangelical”
  • a Gallup poll revealed that 46% of the US population agree with YEC, making the YEC position cross-denominational
  • There has been a slight rise in YEC belief since 2010

Crews went through the standard “fundamentalist” denials of the SETI enterprise, something that those who have ever heard me lecture (“Can Christianity Accommodate an Extraterrestrial Reality?“) would recognize. In the process, Crews again was a but slipshod with the ecclesiastical and theological nuances of the movements he was talking about. He lumped the “fundamentalist” rejections of SETI together into creationism. Of interest to Christian UFO enthusiasts, Crews mentioned Gary Bates (a YEC apologist – one wonders why Crews didn’t mention Hugh Ross here – I presume because Hugh didn’t fit the YEC=fundamentalist narrative Crews was articulating). Crews also mentioned the work of CE-4 on stopping repeated “alien abduction” experiences through appeal to Jesus (without citing CE-4 specifically). Crews’ conclusions were:

1. The more YEC people there are out there, the more hostile the thought toward alien life, which then makes it harder to rationalize and fund SETI. (He didn’t advocate hunting them down for removal). I think Crews is correct in the first part of that sentence, even though his language throughout was un-nuanced. I don’t think it matters, though, for funding SETI. The scientific community and those that support it now ignore the YEC crowd even now, so he’s creating a straw man.

2. There needs to be an “astrobiology apologetics” effort – a respectful one. He said pretty bluntly that ignoring creationists isn’t wise. I’d agree (let’s try and get along like adults), but I still think his YEC threat is a caricature.

Ted Peters followed. His was easily the most entertaining talk of the session. Dr. Peters has a long history of involvement with SETI and NASA and the ET life question from the perspective of a theologian. (He is not evangelical for those wondering). I regularly cite Peters’ material in my own lecture (“Can Christianity Accommodate an Extraterrestrial Reality?“). It was nice to finally meet him between sessions. A couple of the highlights of Peters’ session:

Peters playfully chided Paul Davies’ comments on religion, showing they were pretty ignorant. He asked (out loud) for Davies to censor himself on religion and stick to physics and astrobiology. Thank you, Ted. I’ve said the same thing here. God only knows where Davies gets his theological ideas. Out of the ether I suppose.

Peters also whimsically criticized the coherence of the Drake Equation. Peters said forcefully (but with a smile) that there is no empirical evidence for ET life. All people (like Drake) offer is, to quote him, “big numbers.” Thank you again, Ted. The Drake Equation is vacuous.

More seriously, Peters argued that Christian theologians have four tasks as their work relates to SETI and astrobiology:

1. Reflect on the scope of creation and settle geocentrism and anthopocentrism. He argued that both impede taking the question of ET life seriusly.

2. Set the parameters within which the ongoing debates over the relationship between Christology, soteriology, and ET life. Here Peters brought up the notorious Thomas Paine argument (which I also discuss in my own lecture) – that Christianity can’t be correct *because* there are other worlds — world on which Jesus would have to die an rise again multiple times. Peters’ point was simple: we ought not let discussion over Christology and soteriology be framed by Paine’s silly argument. There’s more than one way to think about the relationship. This was nice to hear since uninformed science media people bring this up all the time, as though the discovery of ET life would overturn the core of Christianity. It’s just lame thinking.

3. Analyze and critique astrobiology from within exposing extra-scientific assumptions. I loved this one. It was about how unbelieving scientists make theological claims all the time (usually through careless language). Atheist scientists do this all the time when criticizing intelligent design. It happens whenever they say things like “If there was a God he’d never create X this or that way since it can be improved on.” Pardon, but that’s a theological statement. Mr. scientist, stick to science. Peters then went on to discuss another SETI science myth (like the Drake Equation) that has long annoyed me. It goes like this:

Other space travelers we’d encounter are far more scientifically and technologically advanced. They must have evolved earlier and therefore have evolved longer, which of course means they are more ethically advanced than we are.

So, in other words, more time spent doing science and technology will increase human virtue. Really? Have you looked at what’s going on in the industrialized, high-tech world we live in?

4. Cooperate with leaders of multiple traditions and address ethical issues of space exploration and ET contact. This last task dealt with issues of both planetary protection and our own ethical preparation for contact.

The fifth speaker was Connie Bertka, a sociologist who has a seminary degree and special interest in religion. Some highlights of her talk included:

  • By 1916, there were 140 books on ET life that also dealt with its religious implications — most of them saw no threat.
  • She agreed with Crews that Christian acceptance of ET life had a lot to do with Christian acceptance (or not) of evolution. She cited a survey that showed that 1/3 of people in mainline denoms that (as a whole) accept evolution said humans existed in present form only. That number was 70% for evangelicals.
  • She was the only speaker that talked about Christians outside US. Christianity is growing rapidly worldwide, and 27% of that growth is represented by Pentecostals and charismatics, most of those are biblical literalists.

The last speaker, John Hart, who teaches Christian Ethics at Boston University, was very intriguing. He was obviously conversant with what most readers of this blog would think of as “UFO literature” and “UFO conspiracy.” Hart talked about “cosmic displacements” in human history — events and turning points that re-orient our perception of ourselves and the world we know. Quite obviously, ET contact would be such a displacement.

Hart then went on to confess his own displacement — a UFO sighting. He talked about how it drew him in to study of the issue. He used that to branch out into why certain people are convinced that alien life exists — they’ve experienced it in the form of such sightings. He justified that explanation by appealing to the famous Malmstrom Air Force Base incident (the one where UFOs hovering over the base took the nuclear missiles inside the base off-line). This case and similar ones involving nuclear weapons has been the research focus of Robert Hastings. This case is, in my view, one of the most credible UFO cases there is, though it can’t prove the source of the craft was extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, it doesn’t get much more real than this one.

Hart has obviously thought a lot about the UFO issue. He recently authored a book entitled, Cosmic Commons: Spirit, Science, and Space. The Amazon description contains this note:

Cosmic Commons explores the ecological, economic, ethical, and ecclesial implications of terrestrial-extraterrestrial intelligent life Contact. It includes data from the author’s interview with Col. Jesse Marcel, Jr., MD, whose father, Maj. Jesse Marcel, Sr. showed Roswell debris to his wife and ten year old son. It suggests an innovative cosmo-socioecological ethics to guide human conduct in space.

I’ll certainly get the book at some point and read it, but this short statement leaves me wondering if Hart has embraced the ET explanation for Roswell much too uncritically. All UFO cases are not created equally.

 

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The news of the recent experiment by Prof. Milton Wainwright of the University of Sheffield has been making news of late. In case you haven’t read about it, here’s a synopsis of the experiment (from the provided link) and why it has garnered interest:

British astrobiologists are claiming to have found alien life form in the Earth’s stratosphere. They collected a small diatom frustule that could have come from space after sending a balloon to 27 km into the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower.

“Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27 km. The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip,” explained Prof Milton Wainwright from the University of Sheffield, who is a lead author of a paper reporting the discovery in the Journal of Cosmology (full paper).

 

 The above-mentioned “diatom frustule”image_1393-alien-diatom

I will assume the comment about the volcanism is true, but other articles have mentioned at least one red flag:

The group’s findings were published in the Journal of Cosmology. We should point out, the credibility of the journal has been called into question before. Time magazine in 2011 pointed outthis scientist’s words:

Blogger and biologist P.Z. Myers puts it a little more pithily: the journal is, he writes, “the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics.” Some of the articles that have appeared do nothing to dispel this idea include “The Origin of Eternal Life in the Multiverse” and “Sex on Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex in Outer Space.”

The I’ve been on that journal’s website before, and the titles above aren’t made up. The other problem with the journal is that it doesn’t produce articles by blind peer review. Rather, authors of submitted papers themselves submit a list of people whom they presume are qualified to review the paper. It isn’t hard to see the problem with that (“I want my paper published, can I think of five friends with PhDs that like me and my ideas and who will almost certainly approve my paper”). Ouch. That’s really a problem. It tells me that the journal’s creators feared that some papers they’d want to put before the public eye in a presumably academic context might not make it. That isn’t the goal of scholarship (or shouldn’t be).1

From a layman’s perspective, one obvious problem (that may or may not be a real problem – hope someone in the science community asks) with the study is: “How does Wainwright know that his balloon didn’t pick up an organism within earth’s atmosphere on the way up to the 27 km mark?” What I mean here is that, while such particles are “generally accepted” as being incapable of floating up to that height, how do we know it couldn’t have been picked up at a lower height and brought along for the ride? (Or, for that matter, on the way down when the balloon landed). Were there foolproof safeguards against those possibilities?

It’s encouraging that they will seek to repeat the experiment in October to “coincide with the upcoming Haley’s Comet-associated meteorite shower when there will be large amounts of cosmic dust.” Hopefully that will provide the kind of data needed to rule out this layman’s concerns and the concerns of other specialists. Ideally, it would be prudent for them to publish those results under blind peer review.

Finally, note once again how far this is from certainty with respect to panspermia. If you’re finding an organism that isn’t found on earth, how could it have contributed to evolution? Answer: it couldn’t have. But the reasoning extends that other such particles that are traceable to earth by some means came here. In other words, it’s not evidence of panspermia, but it would add coherence to the extrapolation.

  1. For all the haters out there, when I list an article on my own CV under “peer-reviewed,” it’s a journal that has blind peer review – I never know who the reviewers are.

This notion has been around for a long time. I remember hearing Richard Hoagland say it many times on Coast to Coast AM. But now we have “science” (goofy face here) intervening.  It was also a sub-plotline in The Facade.

The Mysterious Universe blog recently posted an essay entitled, “Mars Could be the Father of Life on Mother Earth.” To quote the essay, there has been a recent interest in:

Clay extracted from a meteorite of martian origin collected in Antarctica has proven to contain high concentrations of boron. Oxidized boron, or borates, are thought to be among the stuff that led to the formation of RNA.

Let’s think about this a little. Boron is found naturally on earth in trace quantities. Statistically….

Abundance earth’s crust: 10 parts per million by weight, 1 part per million by moles

Abundance solar system: 2 parts per billion by weight, 0.2 parts per billion by moles

Boron does not occur naturally in “pure, elemental form” but must be isolated and extracted. The news of the martian meteorite is the high concentration.

Just in case a reader of the Mysterious Universe piece might be thinking that this discovery in Antarctica means earth’s boron came from Mars, and therefore life on earth came from Mars, we get this penetrating analysis point:

While this doesn’t necessarily mean martian meteorites provided the borate which led to the rise of RNA on Earth, it doesn’t rule it out either.

Wow. Thanks, Einstein. “Just because we can’t prove our theory doesn’t mean you can disprove it.” Brilliant. Now it’s up to people to disprove something that isn’t proven. That used to be called the fallacy of trying to prove a negative. I guess it’s scientific thinking in this case. So then why make a news story? I’m guessing many readers will know the answer to that.

While we’re on logic, can anyone spot a logical leap in the idea? (I should give awards or something for stuff like this).  If Boron is already on earth in trace amounts (in lots of places), then why are we asking whether Mars is the source of the boron that led to life on earth? How about another one. Is it possible that many or all of the planets in our solar system have boron? Now, if only Mars and Earth did, that would make for a good chicken or egg question, but until we know they are the only two contenders, it’s quite possible that the planets in our solar system have boron from a common source out there somewhere. That would mean there was actually no direct panspermic (I think I just made up a word) causation from Mars to Earth — the “seeding” idea would be much grander, especially in the context of a big bang (which, for you militant atheists out there, isn’t a theological problem for lots of Jews, Christians, and Muslims).

It’s just panspermia folks; nothing new here.

 

 

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The Uncommon Descent blog reports that “in the planetary science journal, Icarus, two scientists argue that the genetic code bears the hallmarks of an intelligent cause.” The blog quotes the abstract which reads in part:

It has been repeatedly proposed to expand the scope for SETI, and one of the suggested alternatives to radio is the biological media. Genomic DNA is already used on Earth to store non-biological information. Though smaller in capacity, but stronger in noise immunity is the genetic code.

Kind of interesting — an intelligent design high-five but using that to promote intelligent ET life . . . intelligent designers instead of an intelligent Designer.

Where have you heard that before?

Hmmmm … It’ll come to me any minute now.

The full scientific paper can be downloaded here.

 

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I just read this piece from the space.com website: “Are Earthlings from Mars?” The post begins this way:

It’s possible that the family tree of all life on Earth has its roots on Mars — and a new device could put that theory to the test in a few years, researchers say.

Researchers are developing an instrument that would search through samples of Martian dirt, isolating any genetic material from microbes that might be present — bugs that are living or that died relatively recently, within the last million years or so. Scientists could then use standard biochemical techniques to analyze any resulting genetic sequences, comparing them to what we find on Earth.

Sounds interesting, to say the least, but the MIT researcher working on the device already seems to sense it won’t solve anything when it comes to the panspermia issue. His frank admission: “[I]f we go to Mars and find life that’s related to us, we could have originated on Mars. Or if it started here, it could have been transferred to Mars.” So, in other words, if we find a genetic relationship, we haven’t found in which direction it worked. This is a classic panspermia dilemma. The same presumed mechanisms (e.g., meteorites, solar wind) that could have brought Martian microbes here to kickstart life on earth in the evolutionary model could just have well worked the other way.

But still, it’s a pretty interesting research trajectory.

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